In his work, Hank Willis Thomas often examines the way blackness is represented and shaped by mass media. To make We The People, Thomas deconstructed old striped prison uniforms—a staple of television shows, movies, and other works of pop culture—and remade them into a quilt that spells out the phrase “We the People,” the first words of the preamble of the United States Constitution. These uniforms transform the individuals who wear them into an anonymous mass separated from the rest of the population. By taking them apart, Thomas questions the collectivity associated with the phrase “We the People”: Does its vision of universal rights apply to everyone in today’s America?
In 2016, Thomas co-founded the political action committee For Freedoms, which aims to use art to encourage discussions about social issues across America. “I believe that the more voices that feel compelled to speak out against injustice, the better,” the artist has explained. “The question for me is, ‘How do we find new and innovative ways to respond and call out when we are oversaturated with image, music, text designed to distract and nullify us?’ I’m still in search of answers.”
Label from We the People: New Art from the Collection, October 23, 2018–July 21, 2019